SOME time ago I gained possession of an unofficial double CD featuring the all-female Canadian folk group the Be Good Tanyas, recorded live in the early Noughties. The patter between the songs suggests the three women to be among the most irritating on the planet – endless giggling, private jokes, pretentiousness and generally tedious behaviour, like a bunch of infant-school teachers who have swigged too many alcopops.
Yet when Trish Klein, Frazey Ford and Samantha Parton cut the cackle, crank up the mandolins, banjos and ukuleles and start singing in harmony, all is forgiven. Their three studio albums produced between 2000 and 2006 contain moments of genuine inspiration which make me wish they would get back in the studio together, and pronto.
The Be Good Tanyas were named for reasons best known to themselves after a song by the obscure Californian troubadour Obo Martin McCrory, whose refrain goes: ‘Oh be good Tanya, Tanya be good.’ Having met at tree-planting camps (yes, really), Klein, Ford and Parton formed a band in Vancouver in 1999 with the itinerant Texan singer Jolie Holland. Their debut album, Blue Horse, was released the following year.
It opens with The Littlest Birds, which was released as a single and became the band’s most successful song. That with the accompanying video is something of a study in tweeness but, reader, persevere. The lolloping third track, Rain and Snow, is the real deal. I love Only in the Past while I never thought after junior school that I could enjoy any version of Oh Susanna, but this one I do.
The album concludes with the rocking Light Enough To Travel. Jolie Holland left the group after Blue Horse to pursue a solo career. Her first two albums, Catalpa and Escondida, are both low-fi delights although over the years she has become ever more mannered – almost a parody of herself. Try the song Sascha, during which after about 1 minute 40 she hits a note which is then taken up by an eerily similar saxophone.
Tanyas album number two is Chinatown, released in 2002. It includes Waiting Around To Die, by the great Townes van Zandt, followed by Junkie Song, focusing on the drug problems in Vancouver yet still listenable. Dog Song 2, about the death of a labrador, is beautiful and will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who has lost a much-loved pet. In Spite of all the Damage is a moving mea culpa and the final track is a version of Peter Rowan’s excellent Midnight Moonlight. As always, the musicianship is sublime – you’d almost think it was blokes playing.
I never expected that the third album, 2006’s Hello Love (a greeting to their Lancastrian fans), would be the last but that’s the way it seems. The second track is a version of Neil Young’s For the Turnstiles, from his sombre classic On The Beach, and I hope Old Shakey would agree that it’s a worthy effort. Next comes the Tanyas’ best ever performance, Sean Hayes’s A Thousand Tiny Pieces. If the harmonies on this song, particularly on the repeated phrase ‘things keep changing’, don’t send a shiver down your back then I suggest you apply to have your spinal column replaced. The traditional What Are They Doing in Heaven Today? is a rousing anthem to the dead and there is a hidden track at the end, an unexpected and, dare I say it, fonkeh version of Prince’s When Doves Cry, a harbinger of Frazey Ford’s future direction.
Probably sick of each other by now, all three women embarked on their own projects. Klein collaborated with Alison Russell on a project called Po’Girl, which produced three albums not notable for much innovation. Ford made an intriguing soul album named Obadiah in 2010, with several great songs including Firecracker, Bird of Paradise and Blue Streak Mama. Plus a version of Bob Dylan’s One More Cup of Coffee, taken from the Desire album. Full marks for audacity. In 2014 came her second album, Indian Ocean, which is not quite so good as its predecessor but will delight fans of the Reverend Al Green, whose backing band the Hi Rhythm Section play on songs recorded at his studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
As for Sam Parton, she was involved in a road accident in 2012 when her vehicle was hit from behind. She suffered concussion, and neurological examinations revealed an aneurysm behind her left eye plus a benign brain tumour. By 2016 she resumed touring, however, reunited with Jolie Holland and in 2017 they released an album, Wildflower Blues. You might wish to sample it on Amazon, as I did, but for once I was not tempted to invest.
The Tanyas’ retrospective A Collection was released six years ago containing, surprise surprise, a couple of hitherto unreleased tracks to part collectors from their cash. I have to say that Little Black Bear is very sweet.
So there we are, the Be Good Tanyas. Somehow I doubt they will play together in the studio again, but as Matthews’ Southern Comfort once opined, Colorado Springs Eternal.